In a nutshell…
Americanah is the story of Ifemelu and Obinze who grow up and fall in love as teeneagers in Nigeria during the 1990s. They are separated when Ifemelu moves to America to study. Adichie’s novel tells the tale of Ifemelu’s introduction to America and the changes it has on both herself and her relationship with Obinze. While Ifemelu and Obinze’s relationship is central to this novel, this is not just a love story with plenty of other themes explored including race, class and politics and the legacies they leave.
I was slightly apprehensive when I first picked this book up. It was the title of choice for my book club last month and is not a book I would normally be drawn to. Weighing in at nearly 500 pages, the prospect of slugging through it in order to have an intelligent conversation with my friend who picked (and loved) this book was slightly daunting.
Thankfully, my fears were unfounded. This book is both smart and funny and deals with issues of race and class with an irony and lightness of touch I haven’t come across in a long time.
Americanah is the story of Ifemelu who starts the book as a teenager growing up in Nigeria. The students who attend her school are obsessed with the western world and schoolyard creed is measured by how many songs, fashion labels and magazines you have picked up from the two bastions of western culture, Britain and America.
While Ifemelu wears American fashions and reads American magazines her connection to the west is different. She is much more reserved and skeptical about the dream that is America and what it can really offer.
This reticence deepens after Ifemelu travels to America to live and study. Adjustment to a new country is hard and Ifemelu faces the inevitable bouts of racism (some inadvertent, others blatant) as well as unemployment, depression and financial woes. The novel becomes quite dark about a third of the way through however is saved from being outright depressing by Ifemelu’s dry humour and steady perseverance.
Ifemelu eventually chronicles her experiences in a successful blog which ultimately ends up being the vehicle of her salvation, providing her with a stable income and the opportunity to articulate the otherness she feels. As a reader I found the blog a great narrative tool. It got across some otherwise confronting messages in a direct way without preaching.
For me this book had two key draw cards. The scenes about Nigeria, which are for want of a better comparison, written in HD quality with full surround sound. Adichie talks about Nigerian life in such as way that I often got the feeling I was watching the story unfold while being shown around by a local.
The second draw card are the novel’s two key characters, Ifemelu and her love interest Obinze. I can’t help but wonder if these characters are drawn from Adichie’s own life, they’re both so genuine with personalities, hang ups and faults which most readers can relate to. While reading this book there were a number of times I found myself annoyed at choices that Ifemelu or Obinze had made. In my experience the ability of characters to irritate me through their antics is a sure sign of a good book as I’m becoming I’m becoming involved and not just passively reading.
However while Ifemelu and Obinze are both written in technicolor the rest of the characters are not (with few exceptions). I found many characters, particularly the American characters to be two dimensional and in some instances not much better than stereotypes. For instance, Curt, who is one of the key influences on Ifemelu’s life while she is in America is rich, beautiful and megawatt happy but not much else. Similarly, the members of Curt’s family vary between shades of vapid and pleasant. The only marginally interesting character from the family group is Curt’s bitchy cousin Laura, who is threatened by Ifemelu’s appearance in the family and vents this through various childish but humourous attempts at baiting Ifemelu with poorly guised racist remarks.
The verdict? I definitely recommend this. Its long (maybe too long in parts) but easy to read and will have you thinking about it for weeks afterwards.